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Facts are harder to come by for abortions than other medical procedures

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Protesters picket outside the new Planned Parenthood Milwaukie-Oak Grove Health Center, which officially opened Monday, Oct. 12.

As the U.S. Congress debated the merits and urgency of defunding Planned Parenthood — at the risk of shutting down the entire federal government — a local branch of the nonprofit organization was putting the finishing touches on its new Milwaukie-Oak Grove Health Center.

Planned Parenthood Columbia Willamette (PPCW) officially opened the center just south of Portland on Highway 99E on Monday with the aim to offer reproductive healthcare and other services to 7,000 low-income youth and adults.

See related story: Planned Parenthood reopens in Clackamas County.

While a fraction of Planned Parenthood’s services constitute abortion — 6 percent, according to PPCW — it is inarguably the most talked-about aspect of the nonprofit.

Finding a friend or relative with an opinion on abortion or Planned Parenthood is easy. But hard data on abortion from neutral, third-party scientists is remarkably hard to come by. Simple questions on abortion — questions such as: how many? who? and, perhaps most important to many, why? — turn out to be difficult to answer.

Oregon’s Public Health Division keeps count of reported abortions — there have been 4,940 between Jan. 1 and Oct. 6 of this year.

But division spokesman Jonathan Modie also points out a disclaimer on the numbers. The agency has no formal oversight of ambulatory clinics, such as urgent care, Zoom+care or abortion clinics. They cannot investigate these sites to ensure that they are reporting data on abortion. Because of the controversial nature of elective terminations, some doctors might choose not to report that they perform abortions, or code it under a different procedure for insurance purposes.

“There’s not a whole lot of information I’m going to have,” Modie says. “All we do is, we get the data from the sources listed on the page. That’s pretty much the extent of our involvement with these clinics.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Jimmy Radosta, communications and marketing director for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon, stands in the new Planned Parenthood Milwaukie-Oak Grove Health Center.

Number of OHSU abortions unknown

Oregon Health & Science University also performs abortions, but does not have much data on them either.

“It’s more difficult to get that than I thought,” says spokeswoman Tamara Hargens-Bradley. After coming up empty-handed more than a week later, she added: “There isn’t anyone at OHSU who regularly compiles data on abortions.”

However, the research hospital is working with women who chose to donate through Planned Parenthood Columbia Willamette for two studies involving pregnancy tissue from abortions. The first uses placental tissue in attempts to find and diagnose earlier ectopic pregnancies — pregnancies that occur outside the uterus and can be fatal. The second study uses a special ultrasound technique to see if it can be used to detect problems in pregnancy in the first trimester.

“These studies could lead to direct advancements in the clinical care of women and help to prevent the development of serious health outcomes later in pregnancy,” Hargens-Bradley says.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Although abortion is among the services that Planned Parenthood provides, it represents a small fraction of the reasons that patients seek care there.

Neither side wants data

Nationwide, the Guttmacher Institute is almost the only source for data on abortion. The reputable public health research institute was started and named after Dr. Alan Guttmacher, a past president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

The Centers for Disease Control use Guttmacher’s primary data, such as in a 2013 report on state-by-state abortion statistics from 2010. (See below for Oregon’s data.)

The CDC report contains interesting facts, such as that curettage — surgical or vacuum uterine scraping — is the most popular method of abortion in Oregon.

Also, the stereotype of a pregnant teen seeking an abortion is not borne out by statistics. Most women seeking abortions in Oregon (51 percent) have already had a child. Almost 20 percent of women who get abortions are married. Women also tend to get them in their 20s (56.9 percent) and often within the first month after they first miss a period (65.4 percent).

The main source of all of these facts, however, is a voluntary national census from the Guttmacher Institute.

The institute itself published a report last spring decrying the lack of public health information on abortion and the lack of abortion surveillance systems in many states.

“Data on basic demographic characteristics of abortion patients (e.g., age, race and ethnicity, and marital status) are needed to identify disparities in reproductive health outcomes and help tailor public health interventions to groups at particular risk of having an unintended pregnancy,” reads the policy analysis. “Also, surveillance of factors such as gestational age and abortion procedure used provides important insights into the safety of abortion and changes in clinical practice.”

Guttmacher blames abortion opponents for refusing to fund such research, but abortion supporters can also find these questions irritating.

Jimmy Radosta, a spokesman for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon, says his organization doesn’t collect this data either. He offered this statement from PPCW President and CEO Stacy M. Cross.

“We are also strongly opposed to attempts to turn doctors into investigators and women into suspects by forcing physicians to interrogate women about their motives for obtaining an abortion,” Cross says. “Ultimately, decisions about whether to choose adoption, end a pregnancy or raise a child must be left to a woman, her family and her faith, with the counsel of her doctor or healthcare provider.”

As the debate on abortion data continues, the debate on abortion itself is also not over. Analysts suspect fears of a government shutdown over the effort to defund Planned Parenthood will surface again in December.

The reality of abortion in Oregon

Number of total abortions in 2010: 9,278

By age of woman:

Younger than 15: 0.3%

15-19: 14.4%

20-24: 32.2%

25-29: 24.7%

30-34: 15.5%

35-39: 9.2%

older than 40: 3.6%

By gestational age:

Less than 8 weeks: 65.4%

9-13 weeks: 25.8%

14-15 weeks: 2.8%

16-17 weeks: 2.2%

18-20 weeks: 2.2%

More than 21 weeks: 11.6%

By reported ethnicity:

White: 74.8%

Black: 5.1%

Hispanic: 11.7%

Other: 8.3%

By marriage status:

Married: 19.7%

Unmarried: 80.3%

By number of live births:

Childless: 48.5%

With one child: 23%

With two children: 17.4%

With three children: 7.3%

With more than four children: 3.8 %

Source: Centers for Disease Control

Shasta Kearns Moore
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